Red Scare

By Angus W-G

Communism. Anarchy. The very words send shivers down Western Society’s spine. You and your friends cower in fear at just the thought of these seemingly dystopian social models. But why? How? To what extent have these leftist ideologies been villainized? Is the belittlement of these beliefs problematic or should extremism simply be discouraged?

Other than far right Reddit users, a large portion of hatred felt towards these ideologies is arguably due to what is known as a “Red Scare.” A Red Scare is the promotion of widespread fear of a potential rise in communism, anarchy, or other leftist ideologies, often catalysed by a form of political propaganda. There have been two main examples of Red Scares, taking place in the 20th century, but arguably a new one has been emerging in recent years.

The first Scare has its origins in the hyper-nationalism of World War 1 in America as well as the Bolshevik Revolution. Communist revolution was perceived by the American authorities in the actions of trade unions, including protests such as the Seattle General Strike, and Boston Police Strike, and in the bombing campaigns directed by anarchist groups at political and business leaders. United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was perhaps the driving force behind the illegal searches and seizures, unwarranted arrests and detentions, and the deportation of several hundred suspected radicals and anarchists that occurred during this time. At its height in 1919-20, concerns over the effects the alleged spread of communism and anarchism in the American labour movement fuelled fear and overreaction in the US population.

McCarthyism was the chief characteristic of the second, potentially more extreme Scare, taking place after World War 2 in the late 1940s and 50s. Named after US senator Joseph McCarthy, it was marked by heightened political repression and persecution of left-wing individuals, and a campaign spreading fear of alleged communist and socialist influence of American institutions. The primary targets of McCarthyist persecution were academics, government employees and prominent figures in the entertainment industry. One of these was playwright Arthur Miller, and these events inspired his play “The Crucible”, about the crazed executions and imprisonment of “witches” during the Salem Witch Trials. Miller later wrote: “The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding images of common experiences in the fifties.” He was right: During the second Red Scare, suspicions were given credibility despite inconclusive and debatable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations and beliefs was often exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of their livelihoods, friends, and family as a result, and some were outright imprisoned.

Now, the reason why these historic examples of hysteria about leftist ideologies are important is because we simply haven’t learnt from our mistake.  

The Committee on the Present Danger, a long-since defunct group that campaigned against the dangers of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s, has recently been revived with the help of Stephen K. Bannon (Donald Trump’s former chief strategist) to warn against the dangers of ‘communist’ China. Bannon claims that China’s and America’s economic system “are incompatible. One side is going to win, and one side is going to lose”. However, the Chinese government is decidedly not communist, and the growth that Bannon perceives as a national security threat is largely built on private enterprise. Arguably, Bannon is presenting the country as pursuing a communist model with the objective of scaring the US into responding aggressively to inhibit China’s political repression and expansionism (which is admittedly problematic). Scott Kennedy, an expert at the Centre of Strategic and International studies, raised the concern that “some people are going to say, because of this fear, any policy is justifiable”, as has been true of previous Red Scares.

During Jeremy Corbyn’s years as Labour leader, the press repeatedly accused him of being some manner of Marxist extremist, only a few votes away from sparking revolution. The rhetoric against him certainly resembled elements of a Red Scare: He was compared to Chairman Mao by the Sunday Times, because he owned a bicycle, and to Vladimir Lenin by the Sun since they have similar-ish hats. His policies were framed as ‘radical’ and ‘hard left’, with critics repeatedly calling him a Leninist, Trot, Marxist, and a straight up communist. A study held by the London School of Economics found that 74% of the reporting on Corbyn either distorted or omitted his views entirely. 

What’s unjust in these examples is not the negative opinions against China or Corbyn. It is the promotion of fear around leftist ideologies associated with them to influence the population into condemning them.

Whether communism or anarchy are the best ways forward in our society is a separate debate, but what is certainly true, is that the unthinking vilification of these ideologies is problematic. What leads democracy to thrive is ultimately the free flow of debate and compromise between any (and I mean any, including left and right, libertarian and authoritarian) beliefs. After all, the success of party politics relies on more radical as well as more centrist ideas combining to create a balance of opinions to which the average voter can relate, in the knowledge that, even if party policy doesn’t exactly represent their own views, at least a few people in their party do. Specifically censoring and denigrating certain ideologies only leads to imbalance and dissatisfaction with the public. So next time you see a Reddit post from a self-acclaimed Wolf of Wall Street with Donald Trump as their profile picture, ranting about the commies taking over, take a second, think about what you are reading, and maybe research the topic before spreading false, dangerous, and alarmist information about it.

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